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Rethinking the US approach to refugees in Southeast Asia

A decade after the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam and the collapse of the Vietnamese Army, Americans still find it painful to come to grips with the devastation left behind. One legacy from the war with which this country has dealt humanely and generously, however, is the plight of Indochinese refugees. The United States has admitted more than 700,000 of these refugees for resettlement. It is tempting simply to continue past reliance on international resettlement as the crux of the US response to the refugee situation, but it is now time to rethink and to broaden the US approach to the continuing presence of refugees in Southeast Asia.

By early 1979, tens of thousands of boat people and other refugees were desperately fleeing Vietnam for uncertain and often cruel receptions in neighboring countries. At an emergency conference in Geneva that July, the US and other Western countries agreed to resettle large numbers of refugees in exchange for their temporary sanctuary in Thailand and neighboring countries. In the past five years the countries both of first asylum and of permanent resettlement have at times flagged in their efforts, but on the whole they have - with the US in the lead - fulfilled the commitments made in Geneva.

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Over the past decade, 1.2 million Indochinese refugees have found safe havens abroad, two-thirds of them since 1979. At the same time, some 159,000 Vietnamese , Cambodian, and Laotian refugees remain in the camps of first asylum in Southeast Asia, 125,000 of them in Thailand. These numbers are well below the size of the refugee population in the camps at the end of 1978, before the crisis of the boat people. Nevertheless, international resettlement has not fully solved the refugee problem; nor is it likely to be solved by continued resettlement alone. More effective means must be devised to assist the hardening core of refugees who remain in the camps and the people still in Indochina who suffer persecution.

US and international attention should now turn toward a more comprehensive approach to the refugee situation, including at least three major elements:

* The US and other Western countries must maintain levels of resettlement sufficient to ensure both first asylum in the region for bona fide refugees and protection outside the region for individuals most in need of it. Today, as in the past, it would be irresponsible for the international community to back away from commitments to reduce the pressures on countries of first asylum in Southeast Asia. Moreover, many Indochinese in camps have family members already living in resettlement countries; others were once employed by the governments of those countries. These close ties justify special concern for their resettlement abroad.

* A concerted effort is needed to address the situation of Indochinese through regular, negotiated channels before they leave their countries rather than through emergency refugee programs after they have left. A start was made by agreement in 1979 to the Orderly Departure Program; it permits people to emigrate from Vietnam.

During its first two years, the Orderly Departure Program accounted for only 3,000 departures. This year, for the first time, orderly departures have actually outnumbered boat departures. Nevertheless, the program still leaves much to be desired. For example, it probably has not by itself reduced the flow of boat refugees from Vietnam. The priorities of Vietnam and the countries of resettlement are frequently at odds, and Vietnamese officials have the upper hand on who should leave the country. The recent announcement by Secretary of State George Shultz of plans to negotiate the release of political prisoners and the departure of American-Asians from Vietnam is a welcome step in the right direction.

* The international community must face the situation of the increasing number of people who have fled Indochina but are unlikely to be resettled abroad. More than half of those now in camps in Southwest Asia have been there for three years or longer. Many have been declared ineligible for admission to the US or elsewhere; others do not want to be resettled. For some, there is the possibility of returning to their countries of origin. In the meantime, ways should be devised to increase their capacity to support themselves. For others, who have little hope of voluntary repatriation, the situation is more difficult. It requires a permanent solution arrived at through negotiation on generous terms with the countries of the region, especially Thailand.

The specific areas for action outlined here are not new. International agencies and the US government have tried to advance each of them; but not enough effort has been made in the second and third areas. As a result, resettlement abroad of refugees now in camps occupies too large a share of international and US resources at work on the overall refugee problem. The full resolution of the problem must ultimately rest with the refugee-producing countries, mainly Vietnam. But for the present the US is still looked to for leadership in the treatment of Indochinese refugees. It is up to this country to show the way toward a comprehensive approach to the problem.

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